2011 and 2010 Alsace Wines

Simply put, there is no countryside in the world I would rather live in permanently than Alsace's, and at one point in my life (about 15 years ago), I actually considered moving there for good.  I have been visiting the region regularly for the past 18 years or so, completely smitten with the region's physical beauty, delicious food, and superb site-specific wines.  For my money, it is Alsace that makes the widest range of outstanding white wines in the world.  Like no other place, Alsace can deliver intense dry white wines of crystalline purity and transparency of site, uniquely blessed with the capacity for a long and graceful evolution in bottle.  In fact, most of Alsace's important wines are best at about ten years from the vintage (especially the rieslings), though many wines can be enjoyed sooner. 

Good news (and some not) in Alsace wine.  For the better part of the last decade of the 20th century, many Alsatian whites were plagued by the difficult combination of high alcohol and significant residual sugar, a situation made worse in low-acid vintages, which rendered these traditionally food-friendly wines difficult to pair with most modern-day cuisine.  While alcohol levels remain high in some cases (better Alsatian whites can still clock in at 15%, though less frequently today than just 10 to 15 years ago), the wines of recent vintages are drier and show much better balance.

This is good news, because no other wine region offers so many different and equally delicious white wines.  Alsace produces the world's best dry rieslings and the best dry and sweet gewürztraminers of all, but you'll also find some of the best dry muscats and sylvaners anywhere.  Pinot blanc can be very good too.  Alsace does these less famous grapes especially well; they can offer unique and highly food-flexible taste experiences.  Even better, wines made from these grapes are relatively inexpensive compared to top Alsatian riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot gris. 

Dry muscat from Alsace, almost always a blend of the fuller-bodied muscat d'Alsace and the more perfumed muscat ottonel, is perfect with shellfish such as oysters.  And as good as some German and Alto Adige sylvaners can be, they simply can't hold a candle to the best from Alsace, which are often the product of extremely old vines (a 50-year average vine age is common) and are ideal with difficult pairings such as asparagus and artichoke as well as with simply prepared fish dishes.  Unfortunately, the surface under vine devoted to sylvaner in Alsace is dwindling:  down to 4% today, compared to 15% in the '80s.  This sorry situation is the consequence of the ill-conceived law (originally of 1962, then "fine-tuned" over the years) that decreed that only gewurztraminer, muscat, riesling and pinot gris were  "noble" grapes (pinot noir was originally in the group too, only to be dropped later) and worthy of grand cru status.  Hence, sylvaner vines (and chasselas as well) were ripped up from grand cru sites since these wines would not benefit from the grand cru's name on the label, which helps wines sell for higher prices.

The net result was that the four "noble" varieties were planted everywhere (according to Felix Meyer of Meyer-Fonné, in 1976 pinot gris represented only 3% of the Alsace's surface under vine, while today it is 15%), even in unsuitable sites, so that today we have many insipid pinot gris bottlings (especially) made from supposedly hallowed sites when in fact everyone would have been better off sticking to well-made, old-vine sylvaner or chasselas.  Alsatian pinot blanc (actually, almost always a blend of pinot blanc and the more aromatic auxerrois, also called pinot auxerrois) has no such popularity problems, as these two grapes are used for Crémant d'Alsace, the local sparkling wine made in the manner of Champagne (where the secondary refermentation takes place in the bottle).  As Crémant d'Alsace represents almost 40% of Alsace's wine production, and annual sales are forever increasing (by roughly 3% in 2010, and 6% per annum in preceding years), pinot blanc is clearly here to stay.  Readers ought to know that non-sparkling pinot blanc is also popular:  as its taste profile resembles that of unoaked chardonnay, it has almost ubiquitous palate appeal.  Some Alsatian examples are so rich they can stand up even to white meat dishes.

One other important characteristic of Alsace is that contrary to French tradition, Alsace has historically sold its wines by the name of the grape variety, a practice documented as early as 1477.  Though a few wines today are labeled only by a famous site, such Mambourg or Schoenenbourg, the overwhelming majority of Alsatian wine is still characterized by varietal labeling, which makes the wines easier for consumers to understand and thus easier to sell.  Unfortunately, every wine estate tends to make a slew of wines from each variety and from multiple sites, which can make for a confusing situation--as well as for unbelievably long tasting days, as Steve Tanzer and I know only too well.  Furthermore, for every vigneron who's keen on reducing the number of wines he offers, in an effort to make his portfolio easier to grasp for the uninitiated, you'll find another one absolutely driven by the need to broadcast an aspect of a particular and highly finite terroir.  The result:  yet another new vineyard-designated wine on top of the 30 or so bottlings he or she already produces.  While this may be total nirvana for wine geeks such as myself, it is not ideal for beginners or casual wine lovers looking to make sense of the bewildering array of Alsace wines for sale.

Even worse, few U.S. distributors are similarly smitten, and even those who might be have their hands tied by importers above them in the wine-procurement chain, who do not offer many of these wines.  This make it effectively impossible for enthusiastic distributor to sell many of the single-vineyard wines that I describe here.  Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht is particularly vocal about this problem:  "Twenty years ago, the U.S. was my best market; it's still very important today, but sadly much less so than before.  Unfortunately, the way the system is set up, Alsatian producers who only make three versions of a wine have no problem but those who make 20 different versions are faced with an uphill battle.  My advice for wine lovers is to be insistent about asking their wine store for the wines you read about."  He reasons that, given sufficient consumer-generated demand, some distributors may ultimately relent and bring in a greater selection of Alsace offerings.

The 2011 and 2010 vintages in Alsace.  The 2011 and 2010 vintages could not be more different from each other.  Everywhere I went during the 13 days I spent in Alsace in September, producers told me that the 2011 wines resembled those of 2009, while the 2010s reminded them of the 2008s.  While the wines of 2011 are bigger, softer and rounder, those of 2010 are extremely mineral and high in acidity, and have exceptional aging potential.  To be clear, 2011 is an excellent vintage (the wines are far better than those of 2009), while 2010 is outstanding, quite possibly one of the greatest Alsace vintages of all time.

The 2011 vintage was characterized by a spring drought and very high temperatures prior to and during harvest.  It was one of the driest and earliest growing seaons ever, especially from March to May.  Due to unusually warm weather, bud break occurred in many places at the end of March, about a month ahead of the norm.  Flowering also took place early (around May 20, roughly two to three weeks earlier than normal), but, more important, it essentially happened over just eight days, which ensured even ripening of the berries.  From June through the first half of August, temperatures were cooler than usual ("summer was like a bad autumn," said André Ostertag), with normal amounts of rainfall--very important given that the dry winter of 2010/2011 did not allow for the buildup of large water reserves in the soil.  The rainy, cold August was essential to preserving acidity in the grapes and this is one of the keys to the success of the 2011 wines.

Finally, the harvest took place in ideal conditions, with days that were both warm and dry and an Indian summer arriving in late September.  Clearly, canopy management was important in 2011, as rising temperatures after August 15 caused acidity levels to drop quickly in many areas; growers who had aggressively de-leafed their vines were more likely to have problems with the heat.  In order to avoid picking grapes too rich in sugar and too low in acid, some estates pulled the trigger quickly (many began harvesting well before the end of August), risking harvesting grapes that had not yet achieved full phenolic ripeness.  Fortunately this was not the case with the wines I tasted from all the better Alsace estates.  However, yields were up almost everywhere (27% higher than 2010's very low production, but also 6% higher than the previous five-year average).  Due to the drier-than-usual late summer and early autumn, there was also less noble rot than usual.

The 2010 vintage will always be remembered in Alsace as one of the most extreme in memory, featuring a brutally cold winter and a very hot July, and characterized by extremely small yields--ranging anywhere from 30% to 70% less than normal in some areas.  The 2009/2010 winter was unusually cold (the thermometer dropped to minus 23 degrees C on December 19) and cold weather continued through April.  Bud break occurred late, and another serious cold spell in mid-June disrupted fertilization of the flowers, with coulure (berry shatter) and millerandage (shot berries) rampant, further lowering potential yields.  The flowering was also very extended in 2010, which meant uneven ripening of berries.  July was hot but stormy, while August was cool and wet.  Temperatures rose again in late August, and the fall season was also relatively warm and very breezy, allowing for very slow ripening, a complete absence of disease pressures, and only late development of noble rot.  Yields were low for all varieties, with gewurztraminer, usually more sensitive at flowering, generally producing the sparsest bunches and lowest yields of all.
What the producers say. Catherine Faller of Domaine Weinbach loves the "meatiness" of the 2011s, but noted that "the wines still show very fine minerality and good fruit, and very good balance."   Céline Meyer, president and general manager at Josmeyer, also likes the wines of 2011: "They're naturally low in acidity, and this helps give them plenty of early appeal."  André Ostertag was worried the 2011s might turn out to be another 2007 and be rich and too sweet.  "But then the fermentations went very slowly and the wines developed complexity and depth."  Olivier Humbrecht cautioned that 2011 followed a year like 2010 with lots of stress and thus yields were generally too high, but Etienne Hugel was all smiles:  "The '11s are wonderful to drink and very fruity.  I'm the commercial guy at Hugel, so I'm absolutely delighted by the quality of even the base wines in 2011.  Everyone will love them."

His winemaker brother Marc Hugel was very enthusiastic about the 2010s:  "In 2010 there's very high acidity and minerality, but with good alcohol levels and ripe fruit, a very rare combination.  For me, 2010 is the prototype of the great vins de garde like 1921, 1961 and 1990."  Philippe Blanck of Paul Blanck is just another of the many producers who loves 2010, which he calls  "a textbook vintage."  Jean Boxler of Albert Boxler agreed:  "Two thousand ten is an outstanding vintage from a long ripening season that gave small berries with thick skins.  In 2010 the pinot gris had total acidity levels typical of riesling in a normal year, which tells you just how high acidities were in 2010."  Geneviéve Barmès-Buecher also pointed out that "2010 is an amazing vintage for minor grapes such as pinot blanc, sylvaner and muscat; Alsace has rarely made better or more concentrated ones."  This is good news for price-sensitive consumers and wine lovers.

My own view of the new vintages.  While the 2011s ought to win new admirers for Alsace's wines, 2010 is the truly superlative vintage, especially when wines offer ripe fruit along with highly concentrated, minerally, almost saline mouthfeel. The '11s are big, fruity wines endowed with good freshness, and are generally much better than the '09s to which they are often compared--erroneously, in my mind, as the '11s are fresher.  In 2011, pinot gris tends to be a mixed bag, as it almost always is:  wines either sport 15% alcohol or have plenty of residual sugar, but the better examples can be outstanding.  Rieslings are generally successful, with some powerful wines made, but the real success in 2011 is gewürztraminer, which likes warm summers.  Some of these wines are very tropical and exotic, but they're never blowsy or topheavy.  Producers who own vineyards in truly great sites for this variety (the Hengst comes to mind) had the chance to make amazingly great gewurztraminers of uncommon precision, aromatic purity and complexity. 

The  difficult weather conditions during the 2010 growth cycle mean that this is a vintage of heterogeneous quality, with high-acid, tart wines produced along with low pH but also good ripeness and uncommon complexity.  The best producers have made very concentrated, terroir-specific wines with the balance and acid spine for long aging.  However, the extremely high acidity and strong saline minerality of some 2010s may not be for everyone, especially when there isn't enough depth of ripe fruit to support those other characteristics.  The tactile quality of the '10s is very much an expression of low yields, and in this respect the best 2010 Alsace wines share more than a passing resemblance to the best 2010s from Burgundy.  

One very positive fact about 2010 is that the region produced some of the best entry-level wines ever.  This is because the very low yields in 2010 led producers to declassify a significant portion of their grand crus, so that they would have adequate volumes of entry-level wines to sell.  Overall, it's a superb vintage for riesling, with the long, slow ripening season contributing to memorable wines of real density and complexity.  The 2010 vintage might also give some wine lovers a new appreciation for gewürztraminer, a variety that normally needs warm summer weather to ripen thoroughly.  Though less consistent in quality than riesling and pinot gris in 2010, gewurztraminers are generally less exaggerated than usual owing to their bright acidity, and they have more moderate alcohol levels too.  Likewise, the best 2010 pinot gris tend to be less blowsy and exotic than usual, at times even resembling rieslings in terms of their vibrancy and structure.  In fact, to my palate the high acidity of 2010 was especially beneficial to pinot gris, as wines with even nine or ten grams per liter of residual sugar barely seem sweet at all.  Last but not least, I am confident that the 2010s will prove to be some of the longest-lived wines ever made in Alsace.

A few last words.  All of the wines listed below were tasted in September in Alsace.  The tasting notes are presented in the order in which the wines were shown to me; all wines with single scores were finished wines, while I have used a range of scores for those that were not yet in bottle--i.e., some 2011s and late-harvest wines. I would like to give special thanks to the Conseil Interprofessionel des Vins d'Alsace (CIVA) for their help in collecting samples from a dozen or so producers that I was unable to visit on my September tour of the region.

Please note that on my September visit I tasted many '11s within a few days of their bottling, and I have tried to take this into account in my scoring of these wines.  Although some of the estates I visited have already released their basic 2011 bottlings and will start shipping their more important items this fall, others will hold back their grand crus and limited-quantity late-harvest wines for a year or two, and sometimes longer (as in the case of Marc Tempé, for example).

The total acidity figures provided by the estates are expressed as tartaric acidity units (I converted technical data given to me in less commonly used sulfuric acid units).  Also note that 2011s listed as Vendange Tardive (VT) or Selection de Grains Nobles (SGN) are not yet "official."  In order to be so designated, the wines must be submitted to, and approved by, the INAO during the second spring and summer after the vintage.  Once again, although prices for Alsace wines can be high--especially for grand crus and sweet late-harvest wines from a handful of renowned estates--there are many great values to be had in 2010 and 2011.  Don't miss them.

A note on the scores.  Some readers may wonder at the relatively high scores in this report bestowed on wines made from what are usually considered less noble grape varieties, and at the same time wonder about what might at first appear to be lower than expected scores for some rieslings, pinot gris and gewurztraminers.  All those who have followed my IWC articles over the years know that I'm not particularly impressed with labels or names, and that I try hard to evaluate exactly what is in the glass.  I am also always very careful with wines made in truly great terroirs, as these have a knack for turning into something great over time.  However, though I am the first to admit that a sylvaner or pinot blanc (for example) will never be able to give as great and profound a wine as a truly great riesling might, I am also steadfastly against the knee jerk reflex-type scoring of some experts out there who, oblivious to the quality of what they are tasting, will still and routinely give a wine made with a lesser grape variety low scores only.  I don't believe that way of writing about wine is of any help either to consumers or to producers.

Although practically nobody ever writes about this, the simple matter of fact is that in Alsace, a large number of wines made with the region's  three "noble" varieties (gewurz, riesling and pinot gris), are the result of very young vines and more often than not, vines planted in what are not superlative sites for those varieties.  This is especially true for many lieu-dit bottlings and even some grand cru wines, as the grand cru vineyards have been thoughtlessly expanded in size over the years such that they now contain soils of varied geology and quality level (just consider that the original Brand grand cru was all of three hectares compared to the 50+ of today; clearly, not all of that is truly grand cru land).  Therefore, though they can be very good, the resulting wines are not necessarily better than wines made from very old sylvaner or pinot blanc vines planted a long time ago in what are instead ideal sites for them.  Finally, the relatively high scores for the 2010 wines reflect both the strength of this exceptional vintage, at all levels of wine hierarchy, and the fact that due to low yields, many producers opted to use grapes from grand cru sites for the base wines, rather than bottle what would have ultimately been many different grand cru wines in extremely small numbers.  In general, the gewurztraminers score best in 2011, as the vintage is outstanding for this variety, while in 2010 it is riesling, especially, but also pinot gris, that steal the show.